It’s fitting that the blockbuster musical “Hamilton” is now playing in Omaha, since this is Constitution Week. Our country has an enduring constitutional system in part because Alexander Hamilton — the founding father on the $10 bill — expended immense effort to get the Constitution adopted in 1787-88. He then worked energetically as the nation’s first Treasury secretary to see the federal government adopt sound procedures and policies to fulfill the Constitution’s vision.
One of Hamilton’s central contributions was organizing the writing and publication of the Federalist Papers during 1787-88 while state conventions were debating whether to ratify the Constitution. For the project, Hamilton recruited partners James Madison (a future president) and John Jay (a future chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court). The essays, Hamilton wrote, would “endeavor to give a satisfactory answer to all the objections which shall have made their appearance.”
The trio of writers churned out a total of 85 essays now recognized as central statements of many of our nation’s founding principles. Federal court rulings over the years have cited the Federalist Papers more than 300 times. Hamilton wrote the majority of the essays, though several of those by Madison are particularly influential.
The authors of the Federalist Papers weren’t perfect. In making the case for the Constitution, they argued against a Bill of Rights, for example. Those amendments have proved vital in securing liberty and promoting justice.
Here is a sampling of the Federalist Papers’ observations that have remained relevant throughout our national history:
» A stronger union. In 1787, the existing confederation was so loose that the 13 former colonies were barely holding together as a unified nation. Individual states imposed stiff taxes on goods from neighboring states, thwarting economic growth. Some states thumbed their nose at providing their share of revenues to the federal government. The Constitution, the Federal Papers explained, would bind the states together in a more coherent system. Congress, for example, would receive the power to regulate interstate commerce — a vital step that enabled a far more efficient, integrated national economy that opened up new opportunities.
» Checks and balances. The Constitution explicitly divided federal authority to thwart a monopoly of power by any single entity. Congress would consist of two houses. The legislative and executive branches would share power in some areas and have the ability to check each other.
» Federalism. Although the Constitution strengthened the federal government, it also stressed that the states have their own areas of robust decision-making.
» Judicial review. One of the most innovative and valuable elements of U.S. government is the Supreme Court’s authority to rule on the constitutionality of federal action. “The interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts,” Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 78.
Hamilton isn’t just a familiar face on the $10 bill and the protagonist of a popular musical. He towers as one of the most forward-looking of our founders, with a legacy to be appreciated during Constitution Week.